Comboni Missions Magazine Spring 2021
Comboni Missions 2021 Sp r i ng
New Comboni Bishop The World’s Youngest Nation Gets One of Its Youngest Prelates
Woman of Courage Comboni Missionary Sister Wins Top State Department Award
A Voice in the Wilderness Radio Pacis Shares the Gospel—and More
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From the Editor’s Desk
THE COMBONI MISSIONARIES
The Comboni Missionaries have celebrated more than 150 years of service to the poorest and most abandoned people of the world. St. Daniel Comboni had a dream for Africa, for the Gospel, and for the future of the Church that would lead him far from his home in Italy and the culture and comforts he cherished. He knew that the scourges of slavery, exploitation, and colonialism failed to respect the human dignity of the peoples of Africa, and of the poor and marginalized in every corner of the world.
Here in the North American Province, things are just waking up. The spring birds have returned, new buds are bursting from the trees, and the season’s earliest flowers are in bloom. In some areas, the long lockdown is beginning to ease as the rapid pace of vaccinations allows for the cautious and gradual reopening of workplaces, shops, and schools. Our missionaries around the world, though, have been working all through this long night, protecting the most vulnerable whenever they can; when they can’t, they suffer and die alongside them. It is still too early to count the COVID toll among our missionaries. We know only that the number will be tragically high. But as St. Daniel himself said, “I die, but my work will not die.” Indeed, his work goes on in this 190th year since his birth. This issue of Comboni Missions celebrates the variety of that work, with stories on a radio evangelization project in Uganda, a life-saving school in Ethiopia, a well-deserved award for one of our Comboni Missionary Sisters, and a new Comboni bishop for Rumbek, South Sudan. As always, we have more stories than pages, so please follow us on social media and visit our (new!) website to keep up with the latest.
He founded two Institutes of religious life, for men and women, and today inspires lay missionaries and people around the globe to share in the noble mission of
bringing the Gospel—and the peace and justice of the kingdom of God—to all who have never heard it, and to those who need to hear it again. Today, the Comboni Missionaries serve in more than forty countries in Africa, America, Europe, and Asia. True to St. Daniel’s vision “to save Africa with Africa,” the missionaries themselves come from all reaches of the earth, working together in a common cause. They have been working in North America for eighty years, focusing on pastoral work among African- Americans, Appalachians, Native Americans, and Hispanics, seeking always to adapt their ministries and their methods to the people they serve.
Thank you for all you do to support our mission!
PUBLISHER Comboni Missionaries EDITORIAL OFFICE Comboni Mission Center 1318 Nagel Road Cincinnati, OH 45255 (513) 474-4997
EDITOR Kathleen M. Carroll firstname.lastname@example.org Send Letters to the Editor: email@example.com Volume 59, No. 1 A $15 annual donation is greatly appreciated. Comboni Missions (ISSN 0279-3652) is an award-winning publication of the Comboni Missionaries and a member of the Catholic Press Association. Published quarterly.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.combonimissionaries.org
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8 New Comboni Bishop Blazes a Familiar Path The world’s youngest nation gets one of its youngest prelates.
Climate Extremes Are Harming the Unborn in Brazil Conservation progress is threatened by new business-first focus.
The Hope School A Comboni Lay Missionary shares how one Ethiopian school is saving young lives.
10 A Woman of Courage
6 Around the World
Comboni Missionary Sister Alicia Vacas Moro wins a top award from the U.S. State Department.
22 Supporting the Mission
14 A Voice in the Wilderness Uganda’s Radio Pacis shares Gospel hope.
Cover - Radio Pacis. 4 - photo Adobe Stock. 5 - CM archives. 6 - stories CNA, photos CNA,Adobe stock. 8-9 - photos CM archives, CNA. 10-11- photo and story CNA. 12-13 - Story and photo courtesy of Thomson Reuters Foundation; sidebar chart via Statista 14 - Story originally appeared in America magazine; photos courtesy of Radio Pacis. 19-20 - photos supplied by author. Back cover - Adobe Stock.
The Year of St. Joseph Devotion to St. Joseph has always been a part of the Comboni charism. For the Year of St. Joseph, Pope Francis asks that those who pray the rosary add this prayer at the end. We invite you to remember our missionaries and those they serve as you pray. To you, O blessed Joseph, do we come in our tribulation, and having implored the help of your most holy Spouse, we confidently invoke your patronage also. Through that charity which bound you to the Immaculate Virgin Mother of God and through the paternal love with which you embraced the Child Jesus, we humbly beg you graciously to regard the inheritance which Jesus Christ has purchased by his Blood,
and with your power and strength to aid us in our necessities.
O most watchful guardian of the Holy Family, defend the chosen children of Jesus Christ; O most loving father, ward off from us every contagion of error and corrupting influence; O our most mighty protector, be kind to us and from heaven assist us in our struggle with the power of darkness. As once you rescued the Child Jesus from deadly peril, so now protect God’s Holy Church from the snares of the enemy and from all adversity; shield, too, each one of us by your constant protection, so that, supported by your example and your aid, we may be able to live piously, to die in holiness, and to obtain eternal happiness in heaven.
The Pope’s Prayer Intentions
April Fundamental Rights We pray for those who risk their lives while fighting for fundamental rights under dictatorships, authoritarian regimes, and even in democracies in crisis. May The World of Finance Let us pray that those in charge of finance will work with governments to regulate the financial sphere and protect citizens from its dangers. June The Beauty of Marriage Let us pray for young people who are preparing for marriage with the support of a Christian community: may they grow in love, with generosity, faithfulness and patience.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
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Comboni MARCH 15, 2021 190th BIRTHDAY OF ST. DANIEL
In the letters he wrote during the last months of his life, he appears to be a missionary surrounded by difficulties but rooted in the faith: famine, plague and hunger, the lack of water, the scarcity of means to keep the missionary work going, the sickness and death of his missionaries … In his own words, those were “times of desolation” when “the sufferings to be alleviated are unfortunately too many.” Faced with such difficulties, Comboni remains anchored in faith in God and the missionary vision that inspired and sustained his life. “I am happy in the cross which, when borne willingly out of love for God, gives birth to victory and eternal life”: These words sum up, at a crucial moment, the mindset of his whole life. His return to the foot of the Cross, to the contemplation of the Pierced Heart where it all began, fills with light and courage the moment of his return to the Father and lies at the origin of the confidence and “courage for the present and even more for the future” that Comboni instills in his missionaries: “I die, but my work will not die!” —From a letter commemorating the 190th birthday of St. Daniel Comboni
Around the World
CENTRALAFRICAN REPUBLIC New bishop for Mbaiki
VATICAN CITY Church celebrates World Water Day
The Vatican marked World Water Day in March with a message urging an end to water waste and contamination. Cardinal Pietro Parolin recorded a video message on behalf of Pope Francis which was sent to United Nations organizations on March 22. In the video, the Vatican Secretary of State said that “food security and water quality are inextricably linked” and urged collaboration between countries to make clean drinking water available in all parts of the world. “To guarantee fair access to water, it is vitally urgent to act without delay, to end once and for all its waste, commercialization and contamination,” Parolin said. “Let us hasten, therefore, to give drink to the thirsty. Let us correct our lifestyles, so that they do not waste or pollute.”
Pope Francis has appointed the Auxiliary Bishop of Bangassou in the Central African Republic (CAR), Comboni Missionary Jesús Ruiz Molina, as the new bishop of the country’s Mbaiki Diocese. In March, the Holy Father accepted the retirement of 77-year-old Bishop Guerrino Perin, also a Comboni Missionary, who has been at the helm of Mbaiki diocese since October 1995. Bishop Ruiz Molina’s work in the CAR has been plagued by violence, forcing his ordination to move to the capital of Bangui for security reasons. “The 12 parishes we have there have been looted by the 14 armed groups who are fighting to dominate the country. Violence and massacres are a daily affair. The majority of the population is displaced. The majority of the priests and of the Sisters have fled,” the bishop was quoted as saying in an interview three days after his episcopal ordination.
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Around the World
IRAQ Pope visits Christians in war- torn Iraq
BURMA U.S. bishops oppose military coup
During his historic trek to Iraq, Pope Francis prayed for the victims of war in the rubble-strewn city of Mosul, where the Islamic State declared its caliphate in 2014. The pope offered a prayer of suffrage March 7 for the thousands killed in Iraq’s second-largest city and across the region. Addressing God, he said: “To you, we entrust all those whose span of earthly life was cut short by the violent hand of their brothers and sisters; we also pray to you for those who caused such harm to their brothers and sisters. May they repent, touched by the power of your mercy.” He was visiting the city on the final day of a three-day trip to Iraq intended to strengthen the hope of the country’s persecuted Christian minority and foster fraternity and interreligious dialogue. It is the first papal visit to the country and Francis’s first foreign trip since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. bishops’ conference expressed solidarity with the people of Burma in early March, one month after a military coup seized control of the country. “On behalf of the Committee on International Justice and Peace, I wrote a solidarity letter to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar and have asked U.S. government officials to carefully consider the insights the local Church can offer towards achieving a just resolution to the current crisis,” said Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, Illinois. “As protests continue in Myanmar, I call on all Catholics and people of good will to pray for the people and leaders of the land,” he added. Burma—also referred to as Myanmar—has a relatively small Catholic population, which has been vocal in their opposition to the coup and in support of a return to democracy.
New Comboni Bishop
Kathleen M. Carroll New Comboni Bishop Blazes a Familiar Path (above) New Comboni Bishop Christian Carlassare, mccj, in Sudan, Christmas, 2019.
Fr. Christian Carlassare is following his spiritual father St. Daniel Comboni in more ways than one. Born in Schio, Italy, in 1977, he started life where St. Josephine Bakhita spent most of hers, and less than 50 miles from St. Daniel’s hometown of Limone. His first mission was to the Nuer people in South Sudan (Comboni’s first mis- sion in Africa was in Khartoum), and his appointment as bishop to Rumbek in South Sudan echoes the founder’s own work as the first bishop of Central Africa. Carlassare is among the youngest bishops of the Catholic Church at 43 (Comboni was 46 at the outset of his episcopate). This exceptionally early start comes late for the people of the diocese of Rumbek, though, who have been with- out a bishop since the death of Caesar Mazzolari in 2011.
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New Comboni Bishop
Mazzolari was also a Comboni Missionary. There has been little peace and no prosper- ity for South Sudan since its establishment in 2012. In early March, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to extend the almost 20,000-strong UN peacekeeping mis- sion in South Sudan, with a mandate “to ad- vance a three-year strategic vision to prevent a return to civil war.” The international community was hope- ful that South Sudan would have peace and stability after winning its independence from neighboring Sudan. But almost immediately, ethnic violence cast a pall on those hopes. In December 2013, forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group, drew battle lines against those loyal to Riek Machar, Kiir’s former vice president, who is a member of the Nuer people. Many overtures toward peace failed, includ- ing a deal that saw Machar return as vice president in 2016. However, Machar fled the country just a few months later amid fresh fighting. In February 2020, a coalition government led by Kiir, with Machar as his deputy, was formed; again a temporary peace evaporated. In April 2019, Pope Francis invit- ed both leaders to the Vatican and impressed both with the dramatic gesture of kissing their feet. “I’m asking you with my heart,” the pope said to both men. “Stay in peace.” The civil war has killed nearly 400,000 people and displaced millions, with refu- gees straining the resources of neighboring states. The Comboni Missionaries are active throughout the region, providing peace initia- tives and spiritual help along with tangible material aid, including water filters, food assistance, medical clinics, and education for refugees. Carlassare’s experience with South Sudan and the Nuer community brings fresh hope just when, and where, it is most needed. ∎
God is the God of surprises. And his surprises, even though challeng- ing, carry always a blessing. I did not expect this appointment, but I welcome it with spirit of faith and availability. May the loving plan of God for the Church of Rumbek and South Sudan be accomplished. I am grateful to Pope Francis and the Church for the love and trust that they have shown by calling me to the episcopal ministry and ap- pointing me to be the bishop of Rumbek. My thought goes to all the people of the diocese and their desire to encounter Christ in the Church. My obligation goes to all priests that are serving in the diocese, in particular Fr. John Mathiang for his commitment to lead the diocese in the past years as diocesan coor- dinator. I also recall the person of the late bishop Caesar Mazzolari who gave his life to the people of Rumbek with the spirit of a good shepherd. My appreciation goes to all the religious institutes and communities of men and women that enrich the diocese with their charisms, among them I show special gratitude to my confreres, the Comboni Missionaries and Sisters, especially those we have shared in the ministry. I am also indebted with the diocese of Malakal for the spirit of communion, support, and kindness: May God reward you. I also acknowledge the commitment of many laypeople, whether native from Rumbek or from other places and countries, those who work in the offices and institutions of the diocese, and committed Christians such as catechists, members of church councils, associations, men and women, youth and elders who form and build up this family of God. I want to express my readiness to join the diocese of Rumbek enter- ing in the journey that you have been doing so far and offering my humble self. But, at this moment, what I ask you more is for your prayer, with the trust that our Lord who started this good work will assist me with his grace and bring it to completion. STATEMENT OF BISHOP CARLASSARE
Comboni Missionary Sisters
“As a Comboni Sister, I think it has been a privilege… sharing with people’s lives, with people’s sufferings.”
Sister Alicia Vacas Moro is the latest Comboni Missionary Sister to be honored by the U.S. Department of State. Her lifetime of service and recent ministry to those with COVID-19 have placed
her among the agency’s International Women of Courage.
Comboni Missionary Sister Alicia Vacas Moro: A Woman of Courage Courtney Mares A Comboni Sister and registered
The U.S. Embassy to the Holy See in Rome hosted a virtual watch party of the “Women of Courage” awards on International Women’s Day. Ahead of the ceremony, the U.S. embassy Chargé d’Affaires Patrick Connell said that he was personally inspired by “Sister Alicia’s lifetime devotion to peace and justice, especially on behalf of the most vulnerable.” “For more than 20 years Sister Alicia has served in war-torn communities in the Middle East advocating for those who could not speak for themselves in places
besieged by war and insecurity,” Connell said. “She worked as a registered nurse and a human rights advocate fighting to empower women, educate children, and provide medical care in predominantly Muslim communities.” As a Comboni Missionary Sister, Vacas spent eight years serving the poor in Egypt by running a medical clinic that served 150 low-income patients each day. She was later sent to Bethany in the West Bank, where she established kindergartens and training programs for women in the impoverished Bedouin camps.
nurse who served those sick with COVID-19 in Italy has been honored by the U.S. State Department with the “Women of Courage” Award. Sister Alicia Vacas Moro is a Comboni Missionary Sister originally from Spain who has served the poor and the sick as a nurse in Egypt, the West Bank, and amid the coronavirus pandemic. Vacas was awarded the International Women of Courage Award by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in a virtual ceremony on March 8 along with 13 other women.
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Comboni Missionary Sisters
Vacas currently serves as the regional coordinator for the Comboni Sisters in the Middle East, overseeing the work of 40 Sisters aiding human trafficking victims, refugees, and asylum seekers in the region, but in 2020 she flew to Italy to help serve her fellow Sisters after an outbreak of COVID-19 at their convent in northern Italy. The 41-year-old religious Sister shared her experience during the pandemic at a virtual symposium hosted by the U.S. and British embassies to the Holy See in June 2020. “Unfortunately one of our communities in Bergamo got infected at the very beginning of the coronavirus emergency, and we started receiving very bad news from the community,” she said. “And several young Sisters, several of us nurses, we volunteered to go and reach them and to help them.” Once she arrived in Bergamo, located in Lombardy, which was the epicenter of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, Sister Alicia said that the Comboni motherhouse “was in real chaos” because “everybody was sick.” She estimated that 45 Sisters of the 55 living in Bergamo were ill. Ten Comboni Sisters from her community died during the outbreak. “It has been a very powerful experience to live from inside the suffering of the people in Bergamo,” she said, adding that it has been an experience of Christ’s Passion. “As a Comboni Sister, I think it has been only a privilege…sharing with people’s lives, with people’s sufferings,” she said, calling it a “gift from God for the whole Congregation.” Sister Alicia Vacas was one among 14 honorees at the International Women of Courage ceremony, including Belarusian opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova, imprisoned Chinese human rights lawyer Wang Yu, and Iranian chess arbiter Shohreh Bayat. Seven Afghan
women were also posthumously recognized after they were assassinated in 2020 while serving their communities. The International Women of Courage award ceremony is now in its fifteenth year. It focuses on recognizing “women around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk and sacrifice,” according to the U.S. Department of State. Vacas is not the first religious Sister to be recognized by the U.S. State Department. Sister Orla Treacy, a Loreto Sister from Ireland also received the award in 2019 for her work educating girls in South Sudan. Italian Sister Maria Elena Berini was honored among the “Women of Courage” in 2018 for her service with internally displaced persons from conflict zones in the Central African Republic. A Salesian Sister from Syria, Sister Carolin Tahhan Fachakh, who cared for women and children in Damascus during the Syrian Civil War received the award in 2017. Connell said that Sister Alicia is one of the many “inspiring women religious who work tirelessly to advance human dignity and freedom.” The U.S. State Department official noted that women religious often serve in areas where governments have failed and where humanitarian organizations struggle to operate at enormous risk to themselves. “Women religious are among the most effective and vital partners we have on the front lines in fragile communities around the world. They are often the last beacons of hope for millions of people who otherwise would have no voice,” he said. ∎
COURTNEY MARES is the Rome correspondent for the Catholic News Agency.
Jack Graham Climate Extremes Are Harming the Unborn in Brazil’s Amazon
A new study that links extreme rains with lower birth weights in Brazil’s Amazon region underscores the long-term health impacts of weather extremes connected to climate change, researchers said on Monday. Exceptionally heavy rain and floods during pregnancy were linked to lower birth weight and premature births in Brazil’s northern Amazonas state, according to the researchers from Britain’s Lancaster University and the FIOCRUZ health research institute.
They compared nearly 300,000 births over 11 years with local weather data and found babies born after extreme rainfall were more likely to have low birth weights, which is linked to worse educational, health and even income attainment as adults. Even non-extreme intense rainfall was linked to a 40% higher chance of a child being low birth-weight, according to the study, published in March in the journal Nature Sustainability .
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Coauthor Luke Parry said heavy rains and flooding could cause increases in infectious diseases like malaria, shortages of food and mental health issues in pregnant women, leading to lower birth weights. “It’s an example of climate injustice, because these mothers and these communities are very, very far from deforestation frontiers in the Amazon,” Parry told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They’ve contributed very little to climate change but are being hit first and worst,” he added, saying he had been “surprised by just how severe these impacts are.” Severe flooding on the Amazon river is five times more common than just a few decades ago, according to a 2018 paper in the journal Science Advances . Last week, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visited the neighboring state of Acre in the Brazilian rainforest, which is under a state of emergency after heavy flooding.
Parry said local people had adapted their lifestyles to deal with climate change, but that “the extent of the extreme river levels and rainfalls has basically exceeded people’s adaptive capacities.” The negative impacts were even worse for adolescent and indigenous mothers. The study said the “long-term political neglect of provincial Amazonia” and “uneven development in Brazil” needed to be addressed to tackle the “double burden” of climate change and health inequalities. It said policy interventions should include antenatal health coverage and transport for rural teenagers to finish high school, as well as improved early warning systems for floods. ∎
JACK GRAHAM is a freelance multimedia journalist specializing in coverage of the U.S. and Canada for the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Brazil’s Environmental Changes Have Worldwide Impact
In 2019, Brazil was a world leader in reducing the impact of climate change. Political changes have brought that progress to an abrupt halt. According to Foreign Policy magazine, “Brazil depends more on renewable energy sources (including biofuels) than any of the world’s other large energy consumers. And between 2005 and 2012, it also ran a successful campaign to reduce deforestation by about 80 percent. But the election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president has thrown the country’s status as an environmental beacon into doubt.” Pressured by business interests to allow mining, lumber, and agriculture companies free rein, Bolsonaro has crafted policies
that have set back the progress made on the environmental front. Brazil is the world’s ninth largest economy and home to more than 60% of the Amazon basin. If it cannot carefully balance its economic growth with responsible environmental stewardship, the effects will be felt far beyond its own borders.
Hundreds of well-wishers surrounded the fence at Uganda’s Arua airfield as a small Eagle Air plane landed on the dirt airstrip. An Italian, an American and three Ugandans—all leaders of the local Catholic radio station, Radio Pacis—emerged from the aircraft, holding aloft a small trophy. Accompanied by cars, trucks and boda-boda motorcycles, the Radio Pacis team’s journey back to their headquarters became a city-wide festival as thousands of local residents lined the streets singing, dancing and ululating. Long associated with the dictator Idi Amin, Arua town and West Nile region could now boast of a much different kind of international recognition: the BBC had just named Radio Pacis as the best new radio station in all of Africa. Over a decade after its 2007 award, Radio Pacis continues to exemplify how Catholic radio can respond to the “signs of the times” in twenty-first-century Africa. The station broadcasts Mass, the Rosary and biblical reflections, as well as programs analyzing refugee resettlement, peace-building, and domestic abuse. Through community engagement forums in local villages, Radio Pacis gives a voice to ordinary Ugandans while also raising consciousness in the A Voice in the WILDERNESS Radio Pacis Shares the Gospel with Style J.J. Carney
Fr. Tonino Pasolini, mccj, takes a hands-on approach to the work at Radio Pacis, which shares news and entertainment along with Scripture and inspiration.
community around issues like sanitation and social entrepreneurship. The station works not just to inform but to transform the community. In the words of Prudence Joan Oden, production assistant at Radio Pacis, “People here believe that once you are poor, you are poor. The radio helps them to see how they can come out of their poverty and do things to improve their lives.” The station’s attention to the everyday struggles of its listeners is not just good ministry; it is also good for business. Radio Pacis reaches an estimated listening audience of 10 million in Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In its holistic vision of what its founders call “Gospel values radio,” Radio Pacis is more than a radio station; it is a remarkable sign of the new evangelization in Africa. But to understand the vision that animates the mission of Radio Pacis, it is useful to understand the two missionaries who helped start it. The Missionary Journey Born in 1939 in the northern Italian town of Cesena, Comboni Missionary Tonino Pasolini’s earliest memories are of running into caves to escape Allied bombing. The oldest of five children, he grew up with
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a strong desire to be a priest and entered a diocesan minor seminary at the age of 11. His strong call to the priesthood was not matched, however, by a desire for missionary life. “I despised missionaries,” he says, “for leaving Italy and not helping in their own home.” It took a sudden, Pauline call to change Father Pasolini’s attitude. The Rev. Enrico Faré visited Father Pasolini’s seminary in Bologna to speak about his experiences as a Comboni missionary in Sudan. Father Faré’s passion and conviction left a lasting mark on the teenage Pasolini. As he recalls: “I remember the day and time distinctly. It was 4 p.m. on December 3, 1957. God was calling me clearly, clearly.” Significantly, for Father Pasolini the call was more to Africa than to missionary life in itself. Following the model of the order’s Italian founder, St. Daniel Comboni, who died in Sudan in 1881, the Comboni missionary was expected to, in Father Pasolini’s words, “give your soul, mind, energy, heart and body for Africa to bring the Good News to the people of Africa.” Father Pasolini was ordained in 1964 during the Second Vatican Council. Soon he received his long- awaited call to the African missions, landing in West Nile in 1966. His initial encounter included significant challenges. He asked the local Comboni parish priest about Lögbara culture and was told to learn how to eat cassava. “And remember,” the priest added, “that they are an inferior race.” Fortunately, this racist paternalism was also on the way out. The Comboni General Chapter of 1969 embraced the reforms of Vatican II and looked to renew the order by revitalizing Father Daniel Comboni’s original focus on “the mission for Africa.” Just as he was finding his feet, however, Father Pasolini was recalled to Italy, first as a postulant director and later as the youngest Comboni provincial superior in the world. In 1982, Father Pasolini returned to Uganda and settled in the West Nile town of Maracha near the Congolese border. Here he channeled his energies into the formation of lay leaders and married couples. He also built a parish learning center to train catechists to work across Maracha Parish’s 55 subparishes, exhorting them
to have “open eyes” to identify both the community’s challenges and its emerging leaders. (Catechists typically lead these subparishes, and priests visit every few months to celebrate Mass.) In 1990, Bishop Frederick Drandua of Arua asked Father Pasolini to become the diocesan pastoral coordinator. Recognizing that he needed outside help, Father Pasolini wrote to contacts at the Volunteer Missionary Movement to request an English-speaking lay missionary with a background in teaching, administration, and academic theology. As it turned out, the movement had only one candidate who fit this bill: Sherry Meyer. Born in 1951, Meyer grew up in a small suburb of Indianapolis, Indiana. The oldest of six children, she attended Franciscan Catholic schools from elementary school through university, becoming the first member of her family to graduate from college. After years as a teacher and then a high school principal, she took a job with the Archdiocese of Chicago in the late 1980s, where she also pursued studies in theology and ministry at Catholic Theological Union. She assumed she would either keep working at the archdiocesan offices or go back to Indiana to work in parish ministry—until, at the age of 40, she started dreaming about Africa. Sherry Meyer committed to sticking out one year in northern Uganda. Three decades later, she’s still an indispensable member of the Radio Pacis ministry.
Far from embracing a romantic dream of missionary
to the United States. But Pasolini recognized her administrative abilities and passion for lay ministry, and he invited her to help the Combonis develop a new lay ministry training program. Her mission was straightforward, though not simple—helping local Catholic laypeople embrace their calling “to be participants in the church rather than spectators.” Meyer was soon engaged in a variety of pastoral ministries based at the new Christus Centre that she and Fr. Tonino set up in Arua town in the early 1990s. Her ministries included teaching Scripture to lay catechists, running collaborative workshops for priests and laity and planning two diocesan synods. In fact, 90 percent of the materials for Ugandan Catholic “liturgies in the absence of a priest” were developed by Meyer, enabling catechists to share Communion on Sundays with local Christians during the months or even years between visits by a priest. Meyer realized that she was also offering a unique image for the Ugandan church: a laywoman engaged in pastoral and liturgical ministry. Although some of the old-school Italian Combonis fretted that she was, in her words, one of these “wild, American, feminist women who go to theology school,” Meyer’s results slowly won them over. When her five-year contract with VMM ran out in the late 1990s, she affiliated with the Combonis as a lay missionary, attracted by the Combonis’ pragmatic focus. Such practicality soon opened Meyer and Pasolini to an innovative form of pastoral mission: taking the peace of Christ to the airwaves. Gospel Values Radio In 2001, Meyer and Pasolini were asked to jump-start a new diocesan initiative in mass communications: a local Catholic radio station. On the suggestion of their diocesan bishop at the time, Bishop Drandua of Arua, they named the station Radio Pacis. The name was chosen in part because of the local church’s commitment to build intertribal and inter-religious peace in the historically neglected and war-torn region of Northern Uganda. The home region of Idi Amin, West Nile Province suffered greatly during the post-
Radio Pacis is known for an energetic, diverse, and inclusive staff, both on-air and behind the scenes.
life, Meyer resisted. Questions churned in her head. How could she leave her close-knit family? What if she got sick? How could she beg friends and family for mission appeals after years of proudly supporting herself? And perhaps most of all, “What good can a 40-year-old American woman do in Africa?” But over weeks and months of discernment, the call persisted. Meyer decided to join VMM, a Catholic agency dedicated to lay ministry and mission. Meyer arrived in Uganda in October 1991, just in time for the Catholic Church’s annual worldwide celebration of Mission Sunday. Despite the apparent liturgical serendipity, the initial auguries were not good. Her roommate came down with hives; Meyer’s asthma kicked in; she had no toilet for the first time in her life. “Every day I said, ‘I can’t do this, I am going home!’” she says. She had to learn to be totally dependent on others, a mentality that did not come easily to an oldest child and single woman who had prized personal independence all her life. Now she found herself learning how to take a bath using a basin and how to care for chickens. Given these challenges, Meyer told herself that she would complete a year of service and then go home
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Amin instability and civil war of the early 1980s, when government soldiers took revenge on Amin’s former soldiers and local civilians. Having grown out of Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion—and the brutal government response to it—ravaged neighboring Acholiland and Lango District between 1986 and 2008. The station’s name also highlighted Meyer’s and Pasolini’s desires to push Radio Pacis beyond the traditional strictures of African Catholic radio. To be sure, Sherry and Fr. Tonino ensured that the station broadcast Mass, liturgical music and ten-minute “Scripture Moments” that included commentaries on the daily readings. But they both also wanted the station to embody the social dimension of Gospel values by addressing issues of human rights, health, education, family, gender relations and civic education. For Meyer, this focus on human lives echoes Jesus’s own ministry. “Jesus always preferred the poor, the lame, the sick and those on the margins, and this entails issues of justice, human rights, courts, corruption and health care access,” she says. Radio Pacis went on the air in October 2004 and quickly became the most popular radio station in the region, in part because the station broadcasts on three frequencies in all six local languages: Acholi, Alur, Madi, Kakwa, Lögbara, and English. In turn, Radio Pacis has crossed more than just national and linguistic borders; the station’s highest listening percentage is in the overwhelmingly Muslim area of Yumbe. Meyer posits that this success across many demographics is because local people of all religious stripes appreciate the station’s commitment to “accuracy, truth, and balance” in a media landscape dominated by propaganda, bribery and superficiality. In addition, Sherry and Fr. Tonino refused early pressure to hire only Catholics; Protestants and Muslims serve in prominent management positions at the station. For Fr. Pasolini, this interreligious workforce reflects West Nilers’ general interreligious harmony. “We live together! We plan together! We stay together! This is the real Uganda!” he says.
a distinctively local, engaged community radio station. The station raises over 70 percent of its operating budget from local sources in West Nile, and at least 22 of its 24 hours of daily programming are locally produced. Since 2010, the station has sponsored “community engagement” efforts, in which field reporters move into villages, hosting forums that enable ordinary people to voice their concerns directly to their civic leaders. The station’s huge listenership provides ample motivation for the recalcitrant politician. In turn, Radio Pacis has raised awareness among the local population on questions of human dignity like sexual abuse of children, alcoholism and domestic violence. According to Sarah Amviko, a West Nile native who is the human resources manager for Radio Pacis, women are now speaking more openly about domestic violence. “[The radio] has empowered women to stand their ground and to know that they are human beings.” she says. For her part, Meyer recalled a conversation with an older man who thanked her for the attention the station pays to spousal relations: “The things you say on the radio are really unique—no one else can say that to us!” For Meyer, this demonstrates how radio can be akin to a “social liturgy,” creating a sacred space that facilitates an elevated conversation on questions of human dignity. A good example of this “elevated conversation” is provided by “We Go Forward,” one of the station’s most popular morning programs. In a focus group conducted by Radio Pacis, many local residents praised the program for improving family life. For example, while state-run primary school is free, parents are still expected to provide school supplies. Sometimes this is a big challenge on both a financial and a cultural level. But one Lögbara mother credited “We Go Forward” with convincing her that it was worthwhile to pay for her children’s scholastic materials. After listening to a program on domestic conflict, one local man foreswore physically abusing his wife. Still another woman in nearby Maracha District argued that “We Go Forward” lifted the self-esteem of such marginalized groups as women and children, people with disabilities and people living with HIV/AIDS. “Being a discordant couple [one partner is HIV positive and the other is
Whatever its international reach, Radio Pacis remains
not], I used to fear to disclose my status,” she says. “But having listened to the program Ama Mu Drile [‘We Go Forward’] on Radio Pacis, I freely came out to tell people about my status.” As 1.3 million South Sudanese refugees have poured into Northern Uganda over the past five years, refugee questions have become central dimensions of Radio Pacis’s community outreach. The station’s Rural Initiative Community Empowerment brings together refugees and local host communities to discuss areas of shared concern such as environmental destruction, infrastructural development and disease prevention. Other weekly programs like “Voice of the Voiceless” and “Refugee Hour” enable refugees to speak directly on their own situations. For the longtime local reporter Gabriel Adrapi, this programming reflects Radio Pacis’s mission that “whatever we do, we do for the voiceless of the community.” Radio Pacis also strives to practice what it preaches through staff training and apprenticeships. Many on the staff have learned the ropes through the radio’s Candidate Mentor program, a competitive four- week apprenticeship. The station’s managers have trained with the best mass media agencies in the field, including BBC World Service, the Uganda Media Development Foundation, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Radio Vatican. In turn, Radio Pacis staff are now teaching radio managers from around the continent; this year delegations from South Sudan and Malawi came for training. Not surprisingly, the Uganda Communications Commission recently praised the station as “not only a model radio station in Uganda, but a model radio station in the whole of Africa.” This does not mean that the station faces no challenges. Radio Pacis has been stymied in its efforts to open a new station in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. The station remains dependent on foreign donors for a significant percentage of its budget. In turn, staff salaries are lower than those of Radio Pacis’s local competitors, leading some reporters to take their talents elsewhere.
collaborative and empowering work environment. Multiple staff members spoke of how much they appreciate Meyer’s and Fr. Pasolini’s consultative leadership style, including a tradition of Friday meetings at which staff members collaborate to voice commendations and critiques from the past week. When asked to explain its success, Station Manager Gaetano Apamaku highlighted the “decentralization” of Radio Pacis, noting that “in leadership you have to trust other people to do things.” In recent years, Meyer has moved out of administrative leadership and into a senior consulting role; Fr. Tonino is currently in the process of handing over his directorship role to the Rev. Charles Idraku, a local priest. This transition reflects a demonstrable shift from the racist mentality evident in some members of earlier generations of missionaries. It also reflects deeper missiological convictions. The work of Meyer and Pasolini is based on a deep respect for the identity and beliefs of the people with whom they work. As Meyer put it, “God was here long before the first missionary arrived in Africa.” This mission of integral human formation remains at the heart of Radio Pacis. Echoing this mission, Ms. Amviko described the true measure of the radio station as not market share but maturation. “Radio Pacis has not just inspired people but made people grow,” she says. “As a human being, what can I do to become a better person?” The deep faith of the station staff and their commitment to the wider world encourages a mentality that resists the temptation of creating an insular community. Rather, Radio Pacis encourages greater engagement with the world and deeper service for all our brothers and sisters. As Father Pasolini puts it, “If we work for our community, we have understood what it means to be a Christian.” ∎
J. J. CARNEY teaches theology and African studies at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. This article is adapted from his newest book, For God and My Country: Catholic Leadership in Modern Uganda (Cascade Press, 2020).
Reprinted from America’ s Aug. 19. 2019 issue with permission of America Press, Inc., 2021. All rights reserved. For subscription information, call 1-800-627-9533 or visit www.americamagazine.org.
Those who remain do so in part due to Radio Pacis’s
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Comboni Lay Missionaries
The Hope School David Aguilera Perez
Our school time, especially infant and primary school, usually marks our lives in one way or another. Great memories pile up: friends who are a big part of who we were, teachers who touched our hearts and opened paths we had not even imagined until then… In general, a shared life that filled us with passion and joy and that we will almost always consider as the best stage. However, in Ethiopia, school can have a more complete meaning. In Gumuz, the region where I live, the Comboni family has five kindergartens (three run by the Comboni Fathers, two by the Comboni Sisters) and an elementary school (run by the Comboni Sisters). All these centers were requested by the local government itself, more than twenty years ago, which understood that this underdeveloped region needed educational spaces
that would fulfill two objectives: on the one hand, to promote education in order to be able to guarantee an autonomous and dignified future; on the other hand, to create spaces where boys and girls of all the ethnic groups present in the area could coexist, in equality and friendship, so that the division (so present and so deep in the region) would disappear from the pillars of life (childhood and adolescence) and the idea of complete fraternity would be fostered. This has been the objective of the Comboni family all these years, from the general educational plans to the daily work: to create a place where living together is as important as the acquisition of knowledge and skills. However, the social reality has changed a lot in the last two years.
When I arrived in Ethiopia, this region was in the midst of an ethnic conflict between ethnic groups (with killings, displaced people, burning of houses, etc.). When the situation was normalizing, COVID-19 appeared to break the normality, close everything and spread panic (which had already become a regular “visitor” in this area). And, without having managed to stop this problem, a new ethnic conflict, even more serious than the previous one, struck the life of the inhabitants of the region. The problems that we found in the first conflict multiplied, expanded and knew no religion, age or sex to have a little mercy. The day to day life was dominated by a panic already known, but that reached unsuspected limits. Everything was locked again with the key of fear, violence and discouragement.
Comboni Lay Missionaries
The situation demanded a response, and the school of the Comboni Sisters—which is the one I am writing about—became more than a center for living together, it became the “Hope School.” Facing the reality of violence, many people, mainly women, children and the elderly, chose to leave their homes. Many went to hide in the forest, but the vast majority of those who lived around the school, almost instinctively, and out of enormous trust in the Sisters, chose to take refuge en masse in the school. It was amazing to see how they entered by dozens, or hundreds, with the few things they could grab before escaping, in an improvised diaspora, carrying belongings, children, babies, grain, animals,
etc. The school opened its doors, and became, more than their home, their refuge, since, more than comfort, they sought security. The classrooms were emptied and transformed into places to sleep, cook, eat and receive care; as well as other spaces and common areas, even the courtyards and fountains. As the weeks passed, the situation gave some respite; people returned to their homes, but not to normality. Fearing that their belongings might be looted, they feared mainly for the grain they had collected throughout the year. They again placed their hope in the school, which once again opened its doors so that they could take the grain, in hundred- kilo sacks, to be stored in the only place they trusted at the time.
This situation was especially serious for the boys and girls, who were living in fear and feeling unprotected. The Sisters, aware of this, put the school back at the service of the children, creating a space of trust. Despite the fact that officially all the schools in the area were closed, the doors of our center were opened almost daily to give tutoring and review classes, to welcome anyone who came and allow them to paint, draw, read or write; and, what was most successful, to organize (or rather, to improvise) games and sports activities. At that time, the most important thing was not that the children and young people learned or were evaluated, but that they could arrive to a place where they felt safe, excited, with the joy that should reign at this stage of life.
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Comboni Lay Missionaries
That they could play, interact in peace and tranquility and feel embraced and comforted was the priority; in short, that they could be what they are, boys and girls, forced to grow up by a harsher reality than they should have known. Throughout this process, my missionary mate (Pedro) and I wanted to be involved to the maximum (even though sometimes it was impossible for us to move because of the danger of the ten kilometers of road that separated our house from the school, due to attacks, raids, shootings, etc.). Our daily work, our illusion and our strength were mainly focused on accompanying and helping to carry out the daily activities for boys and girls; as improvised teachers, sports coaches, monitors, chaperones, and everything else we could imagine, we tried to offer a space of welcome and hope to everyone who crossed the doors of the street. In February, after having stabilized the situation, the school officially opened its doors for the new school
year (having lost almost half a year). The students, from 3 years old to the end of primary school, will return to their classes. In this return, the nightmare will be behind them; and I doubt that any of them will cry at the doors of the school. On the contrary, they will be eager to return to the place from which they never felt apart; the place that was for them the only space of tranquility and carefree. Parents, for their part, will feel more relieved than ever, since, if in the moments of greatest torment they trusted blindly to protect their sons and daughters (the most precious gift they have), the return to teaching will fill them with renewed enthusiasm. That is why, although it has another name, I have preferred to baptize it as “Hope School.” ∎
DAVID AGUILERA PEREZ is a Comboni Lay Missionary serving in Ethiopia.
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